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Study Reveals How Anesthetic Isoflurane Induces Alzheimer’s-Like Changes In Mammalian Brains

Posted Mar 01 2012 6:06pm

The association of the inhaled anesthetic isoflurane with Alzheimer’s-disease-like changes in mammalian brains may by caused by the drug’s effects on mitochondria, the structures in which most cellular energy is produced.  In a study that will appear in Annals of Neurology and has received early online release, Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) researchers report that administration of isoflurane impaired the performance of mice on a standard test of learning and memory – a result not seen when another anesthetic, desflurane, was administered.  They also found evidence that the two drugs have significantly different effects on mitochondrial function.

“These are the first results indicating that isoflurane, but not desflurane, may induce neuronal cell death and impair learning and memory by damaging mitochondria,” says Yiying (Laura) Zhang, MD, a research fellow in the MGH Department of Anesthesia, Critical Care and Pain Medicine and the study’s lead author. “This work needs to be confirmed in human studies, but it’s looking like desflurane may be a better anesthetic to use for patients susceptible to cognitive dysfunction, such as Alzheimer’s patients.”

Previous studies have suggested that undergoing surgery and general anesthesia may increase the risk of Alzheimer’s, and it is well known that a small but significant number of surgical patients experience a transient form of cognitive dysfunction in the postoperative period.  In 2008, members of the same MGH research team showed that isoflurane induced Alzheimer’s-like changes – increasing activation of enzymes involved with cell death and generation of the A-beta plaques characteristic of the disease – in the brains of mice.  The current study was designed to explore the underlying mechanism and behavioral consequences of isoflurane-induced brain cell death and to compare isoflurane’s effects with those of desflurane, another common anesthetic that has not been associated with neuronal damage.

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